Plutarch's Ancient Virtues for Modern Readers

Review: Hugh Liebert, 'Plutarch's Politics: Between City and Empire'

Plutarch at Delphi
Plutarch at Delphi / Wikimedia Commons
November 6, 2016

Reading the Parallel Lives of Plutarch used to be required reading for educated elites. For many, many centuries they were "a Bible for heroes," Emerson wrote, and evidently he enjoyed the agreement of Machiavelli, Shakespeare, Rousseau, Tocqueville, Hamilton, and Jay among others. Yet today, save a few classicists, Plutarch is largely ignored inside the academy and outside in popular culture. Why is that?

Well, the 46 lives of Greeks and Romans were considered in the 19th century as either propaganda for the Great Man theory of history, or moralism for schoolboys. "Saturate your soul with Plutarch," Nietzsche said, "and when you believe in his heroes dare at the same time to believe in yourself." Plutarch was moral, not political. "His interest is less for politics and the changes of empires, and much more for personal character and motives to action," the Victorian Arthur Hugh Clough summarized in his edition of Dryden's translation. As morals changed, as society and educators drifted from an interest in "Great Men," interest naturally drifted away from Plutarch. Meanwhile, serious thinkers about politics didn't take him particularly seriously, because they felt he wasn't writing about their subject.

But his Lives do have a political context: heroes need cities, and Plutarch discusses the once free ancient cities under the empire of the Caesars. So argues Hugh Liebert in Plutarch's Politics: Between City and Empire. A professor at West Point, Liebert provides the first monograph in 30 years on Plutarch's political philosophy. Nietzsche and Clough, among others, forgot that Plutarch dealt with lives of cities as well as persons. Recent philosophers such as Strauss, Arendt, and Voegelin championed the permanent relevance of ancient republics but neglected Plutarch. Liebert eloquently pushes back against this neglect.

Plato and Aristotle lionized politics but took the polis as a given. Their political experience was limited to Greek cities and the empires of Persia and Alexander. Instead, Plutarch had the experience of the Roman metamorphosis from republican city into imperial monarchy and the lost independence of ancient cities under Rome. He asks, Liebert writes, "What was the nature of the polis' claim on an individual's allegiance, once its freedom had been lost?"

Here, Plutarch is dealing with what Pierre Manent calls "political forms"—the ideal types of political bodies such as city, empire, and nation. The city is small enough to deliberate and act in common. In its independence and limits, our conduct and character are public to fellow citizens, and the personal question "how shall I live" becomes the political question "how shall we live?" The empire is peaceful and limitless. Its subjects are invisible to each other, but they can imagine one another. The nation mediates these two forms. Greece failed to become a nation out of cities, while Rome transcended its city and became an empire. Plutarch wrote about what the life of the free city was like for a Roman audience who knew it only by poetry and myth in an age of empire.

While Socrates says the city and its regime are windows into the citizen's soul, Plutarch, "treats the citizen's soul as a window onto the city," Liebert writes. Plato wrote dialogues, Aristotle gave lectures, and Plutarch created Lives. In a Life, Plutarch explains, "a slight thing like a phrase or a jest" reveals the soul who conducts "battles when thousands fall, or the greatest armaments, or sieges of cities."

His characters are driven by their love of honor. The successful pursuit of individual honor gains honor for the city. The love of honor drives the Greek cities. Plutarch's Lives each begin and end with the birth and death of the protagonist. The Lives as a whole attest to the origins and endings of Athens, Sparta, and Rome, dying by that spiritedness that first moved them. Under the laws of Lycurgus, for example, "Sparta led the life," Plutarch writes, "of an individual man under training and full of wisdom." In particular, Liebert contrasts Sparta and Rome in their respective lawgivers, Lycurgus and Numa. Since Spartan and early Roman history remains largely unknown, Plutarch historicizes what political philosophy dreamed—Lycurgus is the lawgiver of the perfect regime similar to what Plato creates in speech, and Numa is a philosopher-king.

Lycurgus made Sparta into a mixed regime of strict common life and martial virtue moved by the love of honor. While philosophers of perfect regimes "left behind them only writings and words," Lycurgus created "an actual polity which was beyond imitation," Plutarch says. He compares Lycurgus looking at Sparta with its institutions to Plato's Demiurge creating his cosmos. As the heavens require internal strife, he explains, Sparta requires "the spirit of ambition and contention as an incentive to virtue." But Spartan honor-loving ambition means her end: rivals Agesilaus and Lysander expand Sparta by seeking honor from all of Greece; later, Agis and Cleomenes try restoring Lycurgus' laws by his example, but fail.

As for Rome, in his Life of Romulus, Plutarch writes that Rome's defining characteristic was that "she always united and incorporated with herself those whom she conquered." Though Romulus' successor, the Pythagorean Numa, temporarily pacifies the people with an esoteric religion, he unites the Romans and Sabines. Rome is born to incorporate, even in peacetime. Lycurgus created a microcosm for Sparta with its visible, intimate, but fragile common life; Numa had the Romans contemplate the cosmos with a distant priestly class and look to the world they could conquer.

These two types of honor-loving lives, Liebert argues, are diverging paths for politics today. He draws a parallel between Plutarch's Rome and the modern West's liberalism. Liberal theorists like Hobbes meant to battle the love of honor with their inventive new understanding of the state–we are political equals but no longer local actors. "Like Augustus," Liebert writes, "liberalism realizes universal empire all the more surely by renouncing any intent to rule the universe." In this respect, Liebert understates the virtue of reading about Plutarch’s statesman in their cities. Behind Nietzsche’s jests and Clough’s lessons lies the modest point of the Lives, that reflection and choice remain live wires.

Plutarch, a true cosmopolitan with imperial connections, found the notion of cities reasserting their old independence against the empire somewhat ridiculous. Yet he was devoted to his family, his Delphic religion, and the administrative functions of his city, Chaeronea. Plutarch compared his writing the Lives to "daily living and associating together, when I receive and welcome each subject of my history in turn as my guest." Ideas of human freedom and honor enter into the mind because he has as guests these past men of free cities, for his readers then and now.

Published under: Book reviews